Hitchcock picks veteran over rookie in playoffs
Less than a month ago, Esche said rookie Antero Niittymaki would be the Flyers' starting goaltender in the playoffs. On Wednesday, coach Ken Hitchcock gave the job to Esche. Considering Esche played seven of the last nine regular-season games, the decision was no surprise.
"We have two really good goaltenders," Hitchcock said. "We wanted to see how Robert's season unfolded once he got healthy. There were a lot of ebbs and flows since January. Our feeling was we wanted to start with the experienced player and go from there."
The Flyers finished second behind the New Jersey Devils in the Atlantic Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference. They'll meet the Sabres in the best-of-seven first-round series, starting Saturday in Buffalo.
Esche missed one month with a groin injury and finished 22-11-5 with an .897 save percentage. Niittymaki was 23-15-6 with an .895 save percentage. Both players had a 2.97 goals-against average.
"My game has been pretty solid since I got back from the injury," Esche said. "After the Olympics, it went up a level. In the last few weeks, it went up a level. I still think I have more to offer."
Esche was outstanding during the playoffs two years ago, leading the Flyers within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals. Overall, he's 11-7 with a 2.31 goals-against average in 19 postseason games.
Niittymaki helped the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms win the Calder Cup last season, and was the tournament MVP of the Olympics two months ago when he led Finland to the silver medal. Esche played one game for the United States, a loss against Russia.
Niittymaki started 17 straight games when Esche went down with a groin injury in mid-December. He helped the Flyers go 8-2-1 during an 11-game road trip.
"It certainly wasn't based on anybody's poor play and that's what made it such a difficult decision," Hitchcock said. "I really felt strongly about letting it play out. It wasn't a competition between two goalies.
"This was watching a veteran goalie to see if he can get his game in order and he did and he found his game and he found his personality and he accepted the responsibility that goes with the position."
Hitchcock has no plans to flip-flop his goalies in the playoffs, though he pulled Esche in an important game against the Devils after falling behind 3-0 in the second period Sunday.
"When you start a goalie, you expect him to go the distance," Hitchcock said.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
MORE NHL HEADLINES
- Defenseman Sutton retires after 15 seasons
- Paille snaps tie as Bruins put Rangers on brink
- Sharks pull even as Kings' road woes continue
- Quick burst in second sends Wings over Hawks